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No Tears for J.D. Salinger

January 30, 2010

J.D. Salinger’s death yesterday at age 91 has suddenly brought him all the media attention that he shunned for the last five decades, along with an onrush of  accolades. I won’t dispute his literary accomplishments.  But to me, J.D. Salinger is first and foremost a man whose creepy obsession with little girls made him a garden variety child abuser.  

When I hear the outpouring of adulation for Salinger, all I can think of is the writer Joyce Maynard, who as a confused and vulnerable 18-year-old, dropped out of Yale in her freshman year after Salinger emotionally seduced her with letters that declared them to be soul mates. 

Joyce Maynard wearing a man's watch in the NY Times Magazine cover photo

 As Maynard recounts in her memoir of the affair, At Home in the World, the 53-year-old Salinger wrote to her after being captivated by her photo on cover of the famous New York Times magazine in which her “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life” appeared.  Only later would she discover that what compelled him to contact her was not so much her own literary talent, as it was the oversized man’s watch that she wore in the cover photo.  

This seems to have been a particular obsession of his – I’ll call it a fetish – which he had written about more than two decades earlier, before Maynard was born, in the New Yorker short story “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor” about a serviceman’s brief emotional encounter with a thirteen-year-old girl. Of the pre-adolescent Esmé, Salinger wrote, “She was wearing a wristwatch, a military-looking one that looked rather like a navigator’s chronograph. Its face was much too large for her slender wrist.”    

After luring Maynard from what certainly would have been a brilliant college career to join him in his reclusive life in the New Hampshire woods, he then went on to teach her the fine art of bulimia. When Salinger tired of her – presumably for the next pre-adolescent obsession – he discarded her with contempt.  Maynard’s exposure of Salinger, along with all his other creepy obsessions, in her memoir At Home in the World is, in my estimation, no more than he deserved. 

Joyce Maynard is a writer whom I have always admired, both for her fluid command of  language, and her warm, accessible writing style in which she seems to effortlessly describe so many of life’s indescribable nuances.  But perhaps what has always most drawn me to Maynard, and to identify with, is her fierce devotion to truth.  Anyone who understands – and shares, as I do – Maynard’s aversion to secrets, particularly sick and harmful secrets, knows that it would have been impossible for her not to write At Home in the World about that bizarre episode in her life. 

The literary community, closing ranks around the revered Salinger, criticized Maynard for publishing her memoir.  Never mind a 53-year-old man’s shameless and creepy sexual exploitation of someone who was basically a child (and certainly looked like one on the Times Magazine cover).  Her so-called betrayal of a literary icon has caused irreparable harm to Maynard’s own literary career, both professionally and financially.  When years later, Maynard sold his letters in order to pay for her children’s college tuition – a move that I wholly supported, given Salinger’s exploitation of her – Maynard was all but excommunicated.  To this day her exile has been so persistent that, as Maynard recently recounted, the only agent who agreed to take on her last novel, Labor Day, insisted he could only sell it by shopping it to publishers anonymously.  Which he did. 

Salinger’s death has already lead to renewed attention to Maynard’s memoir. I hope it leads to a huge jump in sales of her book.  I believe he owes her.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2010 5:34 am

    Thank you for giving us the other side of the story. Well done.

  2. Helen Darya permalink
    January 30, 2010 3:01 pm

    Why are we idolizing a pederast and a creep? I always thought Catcher in the Rye was a creepy story, too. Never liked his writing, or his behavior with Maynard.

  3. Risha Shaw permalink
    January 30, 2010 3:05 pm

    Write a dysfuntional teen-age fantasy; abuse a young writer and hold her hostage; hide out; live to 91; become an idol. Phyew !

    • January 30, 2010 7:26 pm

      He did not hold her hostage – she came to live with him (so-called) willingly. But I believe an 18-year-old is defenseless against the emotional seduction by a 53-year old man, particularly one with a literary mystique.

  4. Pablo Chiste permalink
    January 30, 2010 9:28 pm

    Eighteen is the age of consent. Old enough to die in war is usually old enough to sleep with someone. The man was definitely tortured, but it’s neither immoral nor illegal to sleep with a consenting adult. While I’d have to say profiting from someone else’s private correspondence would fit in the immoral category.
    I imagine your example of confusing the story with the storyteller are why he considered publishing to be a distraction. Here are my thoughts on a great writer…

    • January 30, 2010 11:11 pm

      While we can agree to disagree, David, I appreciate your very thoughtful response. Thank you for commenting.

  5. January 30, 2010 11:27 pm

    Thanks for enlightening us to the ‘other’ side of Salinger. I appreciate your desire to expose the truth, even if it is not the most popular viewpoint. It takes courage to reveal what is real, the dark underbelly that people try to hide.

  6. John Hartwell permalink
    February 1, 2010 3:33 am

    I’d never heard this story, but it was already clear that Salinger was obsessive and strange. Franny and Zooey was a favorite of mine years ago, as were his short stories like The Laughing Man. But I knew I never lived on the same planet as the Glass family, and it’s hard to imagine seduction fantasies prompted by a large watch.

  7. February 3, 2010 5:50 am

    Thank you for your comments on the Maynard affair. I’ve always wondered about that, but have not read her book.

    One reason I didn’t read her book is because I spent years avoiding Salinger, maybe to match that he was avoiding me/us. Last year I broke down and actually (as Holden would say) read The Catcher in the Rye. Believe me! Holden Caulfield’s quarrel with life as it really is looks very different at 70+ than it might have if I had read it as 17. The language was a parody of how teenagers think and talk. Isn’t it? Permit me to hope so.

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